November 29, 2008

The Valley Stream, New York Trampling Death: A Sociolegal Analysis

One might begin with the absurdity of the situation: two thousand people standing outside in late November at 5 am waiting for a warehouse full of imported Chinese junk to open its doors.  This is what life has come to in the "consumer economy."  We no longer have to wait for the lead or melamine in the products to kill us; the shopping itself can now be lethal.

The police were on the scene at Wal-Mart shortly after the trampling death of a temporary employee in this store 20 miles east of Manhattan.  They were studying video footage of the crowd which surged through the doors, but the cops admitted it was difficult to identify individual perps.  Anyway, it's pretty well recognized that a mob has a psychology or state of mind all its own, quite different in quality from that of a single person caught up in similar circumstances.  Lynchings and other acts of human barbarity result from this derangement; a conscientious individual acting alone, who would never dream of intentionally stepping on another human being, will mindlessly join a throng crushing such a person if the circumstances are just right, such as in a state of vengeful frenzy.  Or, in the case of the Valley Stream Wal-Mart, if enticed by

"Items on sale at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart includ[ing] a Samsung 50-inch Plasma HDTV for $798, a Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum for $28, a Samsung 10.2 megapixel digital camera for $69 and DVDs such as "The Incredible Hulk" for $9."

Well, no wonder, you might now say.  A 50" plasma for $798?  How does Wal-Mart do it?  The temporary employee, Jdimytai Damour, could not be rescued by other Wal-Mart employees who attempted to go to his aid.  Police said that Wal-Mart did not have "enough security," but one must wonder about that all-too-predictable, knee-jerk criticism.  How many security guards would you need, and with what armament, to control two thousand hyped-up shoppers, lusting for nine-buck copies of "The Incredible Hulk," pushing against the doors in the cold dark of a New York morning?  

Nor does it seem reasonable to blame the first shoppers through the door who probably knocked Mr. Damour down.  Think about it.  What time did they arrive at Wal-Mart?  Midnight?  Their minds fogged by hypothermia, stamping their feet to remain ready for the opening rush, they probably became gradually aware of the huge crowd gathering behind them, of their agitation as the 5 am opening approached - and they were themselves frightened by the pressure of humanity against them.  The opening of the doors by Mr. Damour, at long last, for these vanguard shoppers was probably not so much an opportunity to grab the first of the twenty-eight buck vacuum cleaners as it was a chance to avoid Jdimytal's fate.  It was him or them, in other words -- somebody was going to get crushed.  

So the lead shoppers were acting in self-defense.  Those who followed were probably unaware they were killing someone. Hell, they were just shopping, competing for bargains.  How American can you get? Our current president has counseled this behavior as the most rational response to terrorist attacks.  And Wal-Mart, after all, was just participating in the same insane marketing strategy followed all over the country on Black Friday, albeit with the best deals around.  Mr. Damour was working a lousy job for minimum wage because he needed the money, and somebody had to open the door.  Something bad happened while everyone was doing what they were supposed to do.  That's the way it goes sometimes.

So face it: no one is to blame.  There's no one to arrest.  There will be a wrongful death suit, of course, against Wal-Mart, and a bunch of personal injury/worker's comp cases brought by employees who got hurt in the rescue effort, and by other shoppers who were knocked around. Standard procedure.  These are not so much fault-finding exercises as the process by which we, as a society, partially redistribute Wal-Mart's profit.  America's largest employer can't keep it all, you know, that magnificent take from those ultra-thin margins on high volume.  Settlements from the trampling episode are really just Wal-Mart's way of "giving back."

So I think we should all be content with what happened yesterday morning in Valley Stream. It's what we as a "culture" do. It's who we are, what we've become. It's hypocritical, really, to get too worked up about it.  These are unavoidable consequences of the way in which we approach life and derive our livings from the planet.  A decided bummer for Mr. Damour, I'll grant you that, but somebody needs to get trampled to death in our mad pursuit for cheap crap we don't need.  We keep our economy humming that way.  Don't cluck self-righteously about what "they," the Wal-Mart shoppers of Valley Stream, did yesterday.  We're all part of the same mob, you know.

November 26, 2008

America's Financial Samson Option

I highly recommend Michael Lewis's "The End" currently running in, even if I did first encounter the reference in Thomas Friedman's column, noted pretentious hysteric for the New York Times.  To say that Friedman "cited" the piece underplays the contribution Lewis, author of Liar's Poker, made to Tom's column.  Essentially, Lewis lays out the entire history of the "mortgage-backed security" scam which has brought the country to its financial knees.  The "end" to which Lewis refers is the end of Wall Street: all of the investment casinos, now in ruins, every stocks-and-bonds house either gone entirely or on its last legs, begging for sustenance from the U.S. Treasury to stay afloat long enough to assure the plutocrats who run them of an easy retirement.  How lucky they are that George Bush and Hank Paulson believe it is America's first duty to take care of the very, very rich and to save them from the direct, foreseeable consequences of their own chicanery!  What a country.

Mr. Lewis tells his story mainly from the perspective of the short-sellers who figured out fairly early that the "tranching" of shitty mortgages into great, steaming piles of "investment grade bonds" and sold willy-nilly to pension fund managers, hedge funds, banks and others was all a giant con game, in which the major conspirators were the Wall Street investment houses, the ratings agencies and an indifferent federal regulatory regime. And gee, why did they do it? Because they were greedy as hell.  When the housing bubble burst and the defaults began, the entire financial structure of the United States began to wobble and collapse.  The increasingly worthless mortgage-backed securities, in the hundreds of billions of dollars, potentiated by credit default swaps and other derivatives built upon them, reaching into the trillions, have wreaked utter havoc.  The problem is so much worse than it appeared when the story first broke in the summer of 2007.  As George W. Bush so sagaciously and recently said, "this sucker really could go down."

Lewis relies heavily on the exploits of one Steve Eisman, an irreverent "financial analyst" who had the foresight and the heretical inclinations to begin shorting the MBS market before it was fashionable to do so.  It was only a matter of trusting his instincts - to see what was obvious but which the scam artists getting rich selling bonds systematically denied.  I feel encouraged by his iconoclasm - empowered, you could say, to mention the unmentionable: namely, the United States cannot possibly have all this money we are pledging in all directions to bail ourselves out of everything through the federal government's purchase of the entire U.S. economy.

Reflect for a moment on those halcyon days when we used to obsess about explosions in the streets of Baghdad.  Remember?  It seems like only yesterday, doesn't it?  And the big argument then was whether Congress really should appropriate those vast sums necessary to keep the war effort afloat.  You know, like $80 billion, or $50 billion, maybe sometimes $100 billion.  It all sounds like pocket change now, doesn't it?  Yet how can that be?  At the time the budget hawks remonstrated about the utter impossibility of continuing to pile onto the "national credit card" the ruinous costs of continuing with the occupation.  Virtually on an everyday basis now, however, the federal government talks about a $700 billion TARP for troubled assets, or another $700 billion for an infrastructure program, or $25 billion for the Big 3 automakers, or $300 billion to recapitalize the banks so they'll begin lending again...

Where is this money coming from?  The tax revenues for the federal government are in decline because unemployment is soaring (John Williams at ShadowStats claims that the actual unemployment rate, calculated on the basis of the pre-Clinton method, is about 16%).  Isn't it obvious that the United States is simply declaring itself to be in possession of such wealth? While the world holds its breath.  For we remain, for the nonce, until other arrangements are made, the Samson of the financial temple.  If we go down, we pull the pillars down with us.  So sure, say all the nations of the Earth -- you've got the money, Samson.  Now just take it easy. Keep printing dollars and we'll say it's money, if that's what it takes.  For surely we don't want a repeat of this:

And Samson grasped the two middle pillars upon which the house rested, and he leaned his weight upon them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines." Then he bowed with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were in it. So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life.

November 24, 2008

A little soon, perhaps, to blame it all on Barack

The man has just about been written off at this point.  The leftist cadres who expected so much from Barack are now resigned to his government of the "center-Right,"  and as proof they cite his staffing with Clintonite pragmatists and Realpoliticians.  Quod erat demonstrandum, as the educated wig-wearers intone down at the Inns of Court.

He's still okay in my book.  I'm not a professional pundit and so feel no pressure to meet a daily news cycle in which the entire future must be predicted on a daily basis, even when on a day-to-day basis the entire future is predicted in ways entirely inconsistent with each other.  I keep in mind that Barack has not been inaugurated yet and can only sit anxiously on the sidelines while Bush finishes up his sabotage rearguard actions.  Bush, at this point, is a little like Saddam Hussein toward the end of the first Gulf War: firing his own oil wells with high explosives and opening the pipeline spigot to dump oil into the Red Sea.  The Treasury Department is printing "money" at an insane rate and injecting cash as fast as humanly possible into every bank or investment house with a pulse.  When the final "accounting" is done in late January, the fiscal situation in the USA will be unrecognizable in terms of historical standards.  All of this has happened so fast, as the cascading defaults brought on by the imploding mortgage-backed security markets and credit default swaps created a fiscal Black Hole sucking the nation's wealth over the event horizon, that we haven't been able to clearly conceptualize it yet.  Where are we now?  What's really left?  Do we have an auto industry?  Any banks?  Any investment houses?  A housing market?  Is there any actual "real" money left in the United States or is it all now pledged to government purchases of the entire private economy?

I think these are unanswered questions.  That terribly worried look on the usually uncomprehending face of George W. Bush in the late summer of 2007 as he emerged from a meeting with Bernanke and Paulson - I remember writing about that, how strangely frantic the usually What-Me-Worry? Kid seemed.  He'd been given The Word at that point.  The Dow Jones was beginning its inexorable slide toward the "psychological resistance point" of zero.  All the Wall Street investment banks were in deep trouble and most would fail.  The entire body politic was infected with the "toxic" virus of over-leveraging and too-complicated-to-understand algorithmic investments, and they were all going bad.  IT was everywhere and there was no way to isolate it.  Bush was a shaken man, and bitter that he was not going to be able to escape the White House under the mythical cover of the "ownership society."  Nope, George - the only one who owns anything anymore is you, and you own this one, lock, stock & barrel.  It will be your enduring legacy - the Man Who Wrecked America.

So at least be realistic where Barack Obama is concerned.  If the "progressives" were expecting Obama to install socialized medicine in the first six months, forget about that.  What really is the "liberal agenda" everyone was expecting?  What is the basis of the disappointment, and why is everyone so angry that Obama is choosing people with experience to deal with what may prove to be the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the Republic?  

For my part, I am simply relieved that Obama, without question, will at least restore basic guarantees of procedural due process to the legal system of the U.S.A.  The outrage of the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp will be stopped once and for all, and the true stories of the hundreds of men who have been imprisoned for years on end without a shred of evidence against them, their lives ruined, and all this outrage in service of the gung-ho fantasies of Bush & Cheney (the ultimate Chicken Hawks) as Anti-Terrorist Heroes - will emerge into full public view.  Bush & Cheney set in motion so much malicious shit that it will take quite a while just to restore the government and the courts to basic working order.  And from there, if there are time and money enough, Barack Obama can embark on "progressive" issues.

Bear in mind, all ye 52+% of the American electorate who put Barack in office, that the first task is to undo the massive damage caused by the 49% minority who put Bush within cheating distance of the Presidency (and Pope Scalia's ordination) in 2000, and by the 51% of the Befuddled Masses who doubled down on this error in 2004.  That is an awful lot of crap to clean up.  It may not even be possible.  Bush not only wrecked the machinery of government, he squandered the wherewithal to repair the mechanisms.  None of that is Barack Obama's fault. Give the brother, you know, a frigging break.